By: Marisa Dalessandro
BOOM! The thunder crashes and there goes Carlos, running as fast as he can to my side and digging under the blanket. This is typical behavior for Carlos when he hears a loud noise. The same thing happens when we’re in the car and a semi-truck pulls up besides us. Does this situation sound familiar to you? Where does this anxiety come from and what do we as concerned pet parents do about it?
Anxiety in dogs can be brought on by several different causes such as a lack of self-esteem. Dogs who lack proper socialization as puppies can grow up with little or no self-esteem; unsure how to act in various situations, their anxiety is almost constant as if they’re always on alert and ready to flee.
A dog suffering from anxiety because of lack of self-esteem needs you to challenge them both physically and mentally with different situations where the dog can receive positive feedback from other more confident dogs. This is a delicate process and confidence must be built slowly with small goals repeatedly accomplished. Every small success brings a little more confidence.
Traumatic events can also cause anxiety in dogs. Similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in humans, dogs have been shown to experience signs of PTSD following a traumatic situation. Cases of extreme stress can occur over a variety of different experiences such as natural disasters, car accidents, physical or emotional trauma during an interaction, history of abandonment or significant change in home environment (like a death of a family member). If your dog has been through an extremely stressful situation, he or she may require treatment if the severity and duration of the reaction seems persistent and excessive with no signs of improvement.
Dogs with mild anxiety can benefit from exercise and counter-conditioning. Prior to the onset of anxiety, take your dog for a rigorous walk or game of fetch. A tired, worn out pooch is less likely to panic and just like humans, your dog’s brain chemistry is positively affected by a good workout. Counter-conditioning works by changing your dog’s anxious state into a pleasant one. It works by associating the cause of the anxiety with something positive. Over time, the dog learns that whatever he or she is scared of predicts something good.
More severe cases of anxiety require a more complex desensitization and counterconditioning program. Consult a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist to help you design and carry out the treatment plan. This plan starts with changing your routine. If your dog is anxious when you’re gone, you might start to see the onset of anxiety when you start your routine, like putting your coat and boots on and grabbing your keys. Teach your dog that those pre-departure cues don’t always mean you’re leaving. Put on your coat and sit down to watch TV for a bit. This will reduce your dog’s anxiety because those cues won’t always lead to your departure. Once you’ve mastered that, move on to leaving for short bursts of time, starting at 1 second, while building in counter-conditioning. Based on your dog’s response, you may start to increase your time away leading all the way up to a full-work day. This process may take several weeks and it is vital to this treatment that once started, your dog cannot experience full-blown anxiety (in this case, cannot be left alone) until completed. If possible, take your dog to work during this time. In addition to this desensitization process, all hellos and goodbyes should be calm and low-key. Some severe cases of anxiety require the use of medication in combination with behavior modification treatment.
Carlos’ anxiety comes from his past experiences. When my fiancé, Louie, and I adopted him 3 years ago, the rescue organization said they found him wandering alone on the streets of Texas. The sounds of thunder or semi-truck take him back to a place where he was forced to brave the elements and survive alone. It takes every ounce of will power that I have to ignore Carlos when he is anxious and not reward him with the attention he craves. My instinct is to coddle him, scoop him up in my arms and pet him. Unfortunately, that’s the exact opposite of what should be done. By ignoring him, I’m signifying that there is nothing to worry about because I’m not worried. Once he is calm, I give him attention. After I started this routine, his recovery time is a lot faster and I see so much progress to where I feel confident the anxiety will be eliminated all together very soon.
Do you have a dog that suffers from anxiety? I’d love to hear what treatment methods are working or not working for you.